Gaining Expertise in Consulting

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Most of us who have been involved in any industry or profession for a long time, don't know what we know. This wisdom was given to me by a very smart friend and client, a lady who is president of her own small successful corporation. It's true. Invariably, when we come to assess our own accumulated knowledge, we come up short. Not because we necessarily think little of ourselves. It is just that we have no full cognizance at that moment of the vast wealth of information we have picked up and stored along the way. But if we are jogged, usually in the form of questions put to us as consultants, we seem to experience almost total recall in areas in which we thought ourselves ignorant. It's almost as though we become mnemonists. This is because we are thinking professionally - for money; and our powers of concentration are enormous in this milieu.

Several years ago, I received a phone call from a magazine writer requesting an interview. She was preparing an article concerning a segment of my industry that I had never dealt with directly. I told her so. She pressed for the interview anyhow. Arriving with her tape recorder the following week, she put only two questions to me. To my amazement, I taped an hour and fifteen minutes of continuous information. I had obviously learned a great deal over the years in the interface of that part of the industry with my own.

In my second year of consulting, I was already earning more than I had at any previous point in my entire working life, and I was enjoying my new free life to the fullest. One day, I caught myself thinking, "What a fool I was to have sweated and toiled all those years for the honor and glory of a thankless corporation. I should have been doing this right from the beginning. This is the life." But I quickly realized the nonsense and lack of logic in this kind of thinking. Without the experience and contacts I had gained, and without the reputation I had acquired in my field as a result of that experience and those contacts, I could never have become a consultant in the first place. In mid-life, if you really sit down to contemplate it, you come to the realization that your entire working life is the sum total of cause/effect relationships that led you to where you are now.

How many years of experience are necessary? That is difficult to pin down. It depends upon many variables: the field itself, your position in that field, how well known you are, whether or not you have been published in book form or trade magazine articles, your age. But certainly no less than five years and no more than fifteen. Tevya sings in Fiddler on the Roof "When you're rich, they think you really know." For our purposes, we could paraphrase by saying "When you're older, they think you really know." Indeed, consulting is one of the few professions wherein older age is a help rather than a hindrance, because most people believe that wisdom comes only with years of experience - even though "it ain't necessarily so." I had a cousin who was a student at a dental college. The entire family urged him on to successful graduation by promising to become his patients on the very day that he would open his first office. Came the day, and no one showed up. When he questioned them, they invariably answered "Maybe when you're a little longer in the line, Sonny." You may feel that you know enough to become a consultant at a very early age. But, unless you have already racked up an impressive and renowned set of credentials, you are bound to be thwarted by "What does that young whippersnapper think he can show me?" Next, it is incumbent upon you to make a realistic evaluation of the marketability of your expertise, experience, and knowledge. Is it saleable in your industry? To whom? Is it needed? Will you be performing a legitimate function in your field? A "hype" may get you by for a year or two (if you are clever) but be assured that at the end of that time you will be pounding the pavements looking for a job again-with a tremendous loss of self-esteem and "face." Sit down with a pencil and paper and inventory your skills and your experience. Go back over your previous jobs. Go all the way back to your first job, and even before that to your part-time jobs at school. Everything was a learning experience. And this will be the first time that you will be able to synergistically use all of this learning. You won't believe the kinds of information your clients will need from you. Everything you have ever done, read, seen, and studied will come into play in consulting work.

In my own case, having come out of the shock of being peremptorily fired, I went home to think about my ten years with the company. During that time - and because I had spent so much time in the same place and performed the same functions - many people had come to me for advice. These were people outside of my company. They asked everything from highly technical questions to how to start a similar but smaller business. I gave the advice freely, because I have always liked people. I gave it freely in the other sense, because to charge for my advice would have constituted a conflict of interests. Obviously, there was a market for this kind of service. I decided to give it a go. I really had no alternative, since I knew that I would never take on a regular "job" again for the rest of my life. No one would fire me ever again. All I had to do was surmount the supreme hurdle. I had to get started.
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